It’s time for Washington’s first road test of the 2019 season.
But before the Huskies take on BYU at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, let’s dive headfirst into another UW football mailbag.
I mean this in the most literal sense: have you seen Tuli Letuligasenoa? The guy is listed at 6-foot-2 and 318 pounds. He’s got the build of a grizzly bear who spent the whole summer in the weight room. His legs are separately the size of junior running back Sean McGrew.
Oh, and one other thing: he can move. Through three games, the redshirt freshman and former USC commit has repeatedly barreled through overmatched opposing guards. He has totaled five tackles, including the first sack of his career in the loss to Cal.
He also did this, which won’t show up on the stat sheet but is worth watching nevertheless:
With a quarter of the regular season behind us, UW’s primary defensive line contributors have been starters Levi Onwuzurike (5 tackles) and Josiah Bronson (6 tackles, 1 sack), followed by senior Benning Potoa’e (9 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks), Letuligasenoa and fellow redshirt freshman Sam “Taki” Taimani (1 tackle).
And, of that group, Letuligasenoa has the highest physical upside. It’s still unclear, however, if he’s ready to provide more than just occasional flashes and Twitter-ready clips. If the Concord, Calif., product can channel that strength and mobility, and unleash it for four quarters, he’ll be a force in the middle of the UW defense for years to come. But for now, defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe would certainly settle for a strong performance against BYU.
What does the young depth look like?
When I find some, I’ll let you know.
In all seriousness, the Huskies have a few healthy, eligible underclassmen at inside linebacker. It’s just unclear at this point if any of them are ready to emerge on an above-average Pac-12 defense. Redshirt freshmen M.J. Tafisi and Jackson Sirmon have both played plenty thus far, but impressive hits have been coupled with poor angles and assignment mistakes as well. Redshirt freshman walk-on Edefuan Ulofoshio has also produced six tackles in a reserve role.
As for the true freshmen, all four of them — Josh Calvert, Alphonzo Tuputala, Daniel Heimuli and Miki Ah You — look primed to redshirt, though that might not have been the case had Calvert (a four-star early enrollee) not suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp. Heimuli, the most highly-ranked of the bunch, looks like he could benefit from a season devoted to the weight room. Ah You was limited throughout the spring and fall while recovering from a torn ACL, and Tuputala has appeared briefly and made two tackles in two games.
And, behind senior starters Kyler Manu and Brandon Wellington, that’s the entire list. So how did we get here?
Milo Eifler, a four-star recruit who signed with Washington in the 2016 class, transferred to Illinois following the 2017 season and is currently a starter in the Big Ten. Five-star recruit Ale Kaho signed with UW in 2018 and actually arrived in Seattle before requesting a release from his national letter of intent and ultimately landing at Alabama. D.J. Beavers, who would have been a fifth-year senior starter this season, was forced to medically retire last spring. And the Huskies failed to sign an inside linebacker in their 2017 class.
Hence the chasm between two senior starters and a parade of promising (but raw) freshmen.
Through three games, the UW coaching staff does not appear dissatisfied with the play of Manu (who is tied for the team-lead with 17 tackles as well as a tackle for loss and a deflection that led to a Cam Williams interception) and Wellington (who has produced 11 tackles and a half-sack). There have been poor run fits and tackling issues at times. There have been more mistakes than Ben Burr-Kirven comparisons, without a doubt. But Manu and Wellington have done more than enough to maintain their starting status.
And, besides, what are the other options?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: it’s a little bit more complicated. The receiving numbers for UW’s running backs and tight ends (outside of standout junior Hunter Bryant) are massively underwhelming. Three games in, junior running back Salvon Ahmed has registered five catches for 40 yards, sophomore tight end Cade Otton has added five catches for 39 yards and junior tailback Sean McGrew has chipped in two catches for five yards.
And that’s it. Take away Hunter Bryant, and the Husky running backs and tight ends own a grand total of 12 catches for 84 yards.
But are we sure this is out of the ordinary? In 14 games last season, Ahmed caught 21 passes for 170 yards. He’s actually on pace to eclipse both of those numbers in 2019. The same is true for Otton, who produced 13 catches for 174 yards last season.
So, no, this shouldn’t be particularly unexpected. But that doesn’t mean a more effective swing/screen game with Ahmed and increased short yardage targets for Otton wouldn’t add another dimension to the UW offense. The 6-5, 246-pound Otton, specifically, is not a burner by any stretch, but he showcased reliable hands throughout spring practices and fall camp and he could potentially be a valuable target in the red zone and on third down. The Huskies currently rank third in the Pac-12 in third down conversion percentage (46.15 percent) but ninth in red zone touchdown percentage (53.85 percent).
And on this roster, especially, Jacob Eason needs all the big targets he can find.
For those confused about the UW junior wide receiver’s somewhat unexplained absences, The Times reported prior to the season opener that Jones will likely miss the majority of the season with an injury. Petersen has said more than once that Jones is “week-to-week,” which could technically mean that he’ll miss one game … or 11. But it’s UW’s policy not to comment on an injury unless it’s season-ending. The fact that Petersen has not made that announcement could suggest the Huskies are hoping to get Jones back sometime later this season.
And, if they did, that would certainly be a boost for a somewhat maligned (and undersized) receiving corps. The 6-4, 213-pound junior led the team with six receiving touchdowns (to go along with 31 catches, 491 receiving yards and 15.8 yards per reception) last season.
As long as the junior wideout is “week-to-week,” my guess is he’ll remain on the UW depth chart. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be available when UW heads to his hometown of Provo, Utah, on Saturday to take on BYU.